Today’s interview is with Diana Saltoon-Briggs, author of Wife, Just Let Go: Zen, Alzheimer’s, and Love, one of the books that made my ‘Top 5 Memoirs of 2017’ list. Diana’s book is a must-read for anyone interested in Alzheimer’s, aging, and the way our culture views death and dying. I was awed and more than a little inspired by her answers to my questions below.
One of the main topics of Wife, Just Let Go is your beloved partner’s struggle with Alzheimer’s near the end of his life. This is a disease that has gained much more widespread publicity in recent years. Have you found that people have reached out to you specifically because of the way you so honestly treated your experience as the partner of someone with Alzheimer’s in the book? Have you heard from others who have gone through similar experiences?
Even before the book was published, people would ask me how I managed as his care person at home for all those years. Since the publication of the book this outreach has intensified. I’ve had some book events and even a workshop where I’m able to encourage questions and discussions from others going through similar experiences. I keep getting more queries about my experiences and positive feedback on the book from other care persons and hospice workers, especially those who’ve lost loved ones through Alzheimer’s and feel alone in their grief. I share with them what I feel was so important for me in my journey with Robert: holding the memories he was losing as he struggled to write and continued to write in his last years. Filling in that loss and above all, placing a great faith in love – something I learned deeply from him during those years. Then of course there is the grief. I recently published an article on my blog about grief that has no time constraints. The redemption is in knowing that, as a cloud that temporarily obscures the clarity of the sky, the emotional upheaval too is temporary and ultimately the heart is cleansed by tears expressing a profound love.
I was very impressed by how streamlined Wife, Just Let Go is as a memoir. So many essential, beautiful memories were captured in just a few pages. Was it difficult to choose which memories to include? Did you enlist the help of family and friends or solely follow your intuition about what to include in the book?
The idea of a duo memoir was suggested by a friend who thought Robert’s essays needed to be expanded if it were to become a book. Another friend, Noah, a long time tea student of mine and somewhat adopted as a grandson especially when we returned to Portland from New York, was drawn to Robert because of his own interest in writing. He suggested I include some kind of introduction, poems I’d written, and parts of the journal I kept during the years of caregiving Robert. Some of the memories of how I met Robert, the work we did together, the travels we took, came to mind. Each memory seemed to unfold naturally as if in a film of our lives together. Noah came one night and we laid out all of Robert’s essays, spreading them on the floor in some kind of order. As I looked at them it felt natural to compliment his essays with poems and compositions I’d written that harmonized with his writing. The memories came, woven in with the text, as if Robert himself was present and aiding this effort.
You also mentioned the ARTZ Foundation in the book (Artists for Alzheimer’s I’m Still Here Foundation). Can you tell us a little more about that?
ARTZ – Artists for Alzheimer’s, is a foundation in Woburn, MA that encourages creativity in patients suffering from memory loss. I needed help when Robert was still alive, trying to find a way to publish Robert’s essays. At that time Robert kept them in a white binder – he called his “white book,” tentatively titled: Unexpected Joys and Trials of One American Life: Turning 83 and Beyond. I found out about ARTZ and contacted them. The person in charge was most interested to learn about Robert and what he was doing. He had a few suggestions about publishing but wisely mentioned something the Foundation had begun – encouraging art and museum experiences for Alzheimer’s patients. He recommended I contact MOMA – the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, NY, who was offering Meet Me At MOMA series for Alzheimer’s patients and their care persons. The events take place once a month and are facilitated by highly trained Museum instructors. Essentially it’s a way to engage dementia patients accompanied by their care persons – mostly family members, encouraging them to express their spontaneous reactions to the paintings they were viewing. The comments elicited when we were present were amazing and even enlightening and prove that the creative part of the Alzheimer’s brain is still active long after memory loss and debilitation. What was most rewarding about connecting with ARTZ was learning about the I’m Still Here Foundation in MA and their President John Zeisel’s book I’m Still Here that presents a whole new philosophy of Alzheimer’s care and points out the various “gifts of Alzheimer’s.”
I was fascinated by one of the passages in the book from your partner, Robert, in which he talks about aging. Specifically, he says, “Even so-called ‘uniform’ aging differs in men and women or even people of the same gender. People’s individual responses to their aging differ as well…we have to pay attention to our own self and what it’s telling us.” What are your thoughts on that?
So much of what he says resonates with me. I feel aging is an individual thing and much of it depends on our attitudes, practices, and eating habits. For me, this is what it means to “pay attention to the self.” To realize what we can and should not do or consume by listening to feedback from within. The word “chi” is Chinese and it means the fundamental energy that comes from the Universe and the ways we interact with this energy flowing in and out of the body and mind. Awareness, active participation with this energy, is essential to the vibrancy of our age and for healing and health. Exercises are helpful – especially in the arts of Tai Chi, Qigong, Yoga, etc., that teach us how to flow with the energy. This centers on the breath and how we breathe is most important towards increasing and expanding that energy. Breathing deeply from below the abdomen for example, enhances the “chi” of each person. Robert mentions measuring life with seasons – being at one with nature. This is what measures our aging – not the years we have. Spring, summer, autumn, winter, each season brings a new view to experiencing life. We become age-less when we experience life as it is – with what’s unfolding, present in each aware moment.
You mentioned your practice of the Japanese Way of Tea a few times in the book. Have you found the lessons from this practice to be helpful during times of difficulty and intense change in life?
It has been and still is one of the pillars that hold me up in my life. Chado – The Japanese Way of Tea brings peace and integration to anyone immersed in its practice. The principles of Chado – harmony, respect, purity and tranquility – are fundamental ways to be if we’re to experience peace with each other and nature. Making a simple bowl of tea mindfully, focusing on each step of the procedure, brings a clear and present mind, a mind of no hindrances. The heart is quiet and spacious. The training of Chado is one of awareness, discipline and concentration similar to Zen practice. It never fails to ground me and bring clarity and peace. Above all, it does the same for others engaged in a tea gathering, however simple or elaborate. Sharing tea with Robert was one of the finest things I could do with him when things became difficult and transitions of all kinds entered our lives.
Where can people find out more about you as an author?
I have a website: www.teaandzen.com that describes my book, Tea and Ceremony: Experiencing Tranquility, as well as an active blog: dianasaltoon.blogspot.com. I’m connected to LinkedIn as well as Facebook. Amazon carries my books with descriptions of my work as well, or they can simply google my name for information.
How can people support Wife, Just Let Go and efforts to increase Alzheimer’s awareness?
By spreading the word about the book and recommending it to others and to bookstores. Perhaps visit their favorite bookstores and have them order the book to make it more available to the public. They can also contact the Alzheimer’s Association wherever they are and mention my book as a new way of viewing caregiving. Meanwhile, if they have a copy of the book and find it helpful, they can let others know and perhaps gift a book to someone intensely involved in caregiving or suffering the grief and loss of a loved one. They can always order a copy through my blog, through PayPal as well as Amazon. Posting reviews will also bring more awareness of what it can do for others. When I wrote the book, I just wanted to get Robert’s last works in print. Now his words have become a true gift for me to share with others.
Diana Saltoon-Briggs has traveled extensively, studied yoga, and in the 1970s developed a program that dealt with modern stress. Her interest in Zen led to a study of Chado, The Way of Tea, as a Zen art and received a certificate of Chamei from the Urasenke School in Kyoto, Japan. Diana became a teacher at the Portland Wakai Tea Association in Oregon before moving with her husband, Robert Briggs, to New York in 2011. They returned to Portland, Oregon, in 2014. A member of Zen communities in Oregon and New York, Diana continues to give presentations, classes and workshops on the Zen Art of Tea. She is the author of Tea and Ceremony: Experiencing Tranquility (2004), The Common Book of Consciousness (1990), and Four Hands: Green Gulch Poems (1987).